The disappearance of Nicola Bulley has dominated the headlines over the last few weeks; everyone has an opinion, everyone has a ‘feeling’ and because social media blurs the line between reality and fiction, suddenly everyone’s an amateur detective and we’ve become a little bit numb.
But these are real people, people whose lives will never be the same again, and I really hope her family and friends get some answers soon without the truth being obscured by some bloke on Twitter who’s cosplaying Midsomer Murders because he binge-watched Happy Valley in one weekend, and once zoomed in on a Facebook photo of her dog looking sad.
Damaging sexist insinuations by the police
One of the things this case has highlighted is the way women are talked about in the media.
In the week leading up to Nicola’s body being found, the narrative surrounding the case changed. Information was divulged by the police about her mental state, in particular in relation to her struggles with the menopause, with some quite damaging insinuations about HRT. This is particularly frustrating at a time when we’re trying hard to take the stigma away. Women are already worried about talking about it, for fear of being labelled unstable; or because they’re worried it might change how people see them. So please don’t use it to fill the space when you haven’t got any real answers.
The sexist labelling of Nicola as unstable, hormonal and over-emotional discredits her, and diminishes public concern because people like to distance themselves from that kind of thing. We are all over this kind of case usually; after all, a lot of the TV dramas we watch are based around violence against women. But we’re only interested if they fit a certain profile: they need to be white, fairly young, ideally middle-class, and preferably devoted to their families. We don’t want mental health issues; we want cases with a clear distinction between good and bad. We need it wrapped up and presented to us cleanly.
Women stereotyped as unstable and hysterical
The same happened a couple of years ago when a young student went missing in Hull. A man who had also been charged with sexual offences in the past was arrested a few days after her disappearance. When he appeared in court his defence team read out excerpts from the young woman’s diary, in an attempt to prove that she was suicidal. Her body was found two months later, and he was charged with her rape and murder.
Surely the unstable, hysterical woman trope is a bit tired now – the headline equivalent of patting us on the head, saying ‘calm down, dear!’. It only confirms the idea that women aren’t to be trusted, especially the ones who don’t quite toe the line, the ones who don’t hide their emotions or the ones who struggle.
What would they say about me?
I imagine plenty of women are now questioning which bits of their lives would be held up for scrutiny and used as evidence of not being stable, if they were to disappear or accuse a man of a crime in court. Drink too much? Ever taken antidepressants? Had counselling?
That’s pretty much everyone I know! It all harks back to the witch trials 400 years ago when anyone who veered away from the traditional view of a subservient woman, with a husband and children, was accused of witchcraft. Although of course, women are still called witches today.
Women’s emotions are used against them; the last thing they should be is over-emotional, it’s their Achilles heel and it suggests a lack of control. Never mind that that same lack of control is often used as a defence by men accused of attacking women: they got carried away, they couldn’t help themselves. Remember, men’s uncontrolled emotions are the reason they carry out the violence, women’s are the reason it happens to them.
‘It was her own fault’
Women are often held responsible for the bad things that happen to them. ‘It was her own fault’ – for wearing the wrong clothes, drinking the wrong drinks, walking the wrong way home, having the wrong hormones, giving the wrong answer when propositioned, being the wrong kind of ambitious.
Ambition. There’s an interesting one. If you’re a successful, ambitious man that’s a powerful trait, expected almost. But a successful, ambitious woman? That’s not natural, it will be used against you, as was the case with Emma Pattison, the head teacher whose husband killed her and their child, then killed himself. The headlines? The suggestion that he was struggling with having to live in the shadow of his successful wife.
It’s very subtly done and of course we all know that he made that choice himself, but it’s always there in the background. The phrase ‘career woman’ is used a lot, but never in a positive way, and I’ve never heard the phrase ‘career man’. Successful women are referred to as hard-nosed bitches, or ball breakers, the implication being that there’s an unnatural kind of ‘male-ness’ about their success – a line of thinking that leads to understanding and sympathy for a man who takes violent retribution when his status is threatened.
Women politicians held to different standards
A lot of the press coverage over the years of the recently resigned Nicola Sturgeon has focused on her appearance. For example, her legs were once compared to Theresa May’s, and she was described this month by the BBC’s James Naughtie as “looking tired”. Throughout her career a lot of assumptions were also made about the fact that she hasn’t got children.
When Jacinda Adern stepped down the media predictably asked, “Can women really have it all?”. Of course, male politicians are criticised too, but it’s hardly ever related to their gender. They don’t have to put up with having everything they are, everything they’ve achieved, reduced to how they function as a sexual being.
Language influences opinions – and behaviour
The language we use in these cases is important – it influences opinions and also behaviour. A quick scan through statistics shows that of the 85,000 women and 12,000 men who experience a sexual crime, only 15% report it to the police. 15%! And this is in the age of the #metoo movement when we are being much more open about it. But is it any wonder that we think we won’t be believed, or that we worry we’ll be accused of leading our attackers on?
We know that our character, our lifestyles, our choices, our mental health, our clothing, our sobriety (or lack of it) will be held up for scrutiny, analysed for signs that we were asking for it. How many times have women ‘made a fuss’ and been told that they can’t take a joke, or that they should be flattered?
This all comes at a time when we have little faith in the very people who are supposed to protect us. Remember when we were told to flag down a passing bus if we’re ever stopped by a plain clothes officer that we’re suspicious of? Great stuff, thanks, I’ll add that to my list. Incidentally, there’s currently a public inquiry being held into misogyny in the Metropolitan Police, and it was only a couple of years ago that Sarah Everard was killed by a police officer who, it later turned out, had previously been accused of offences against women, including flashing.
Let’s just talk about flashing for a moment. Now there’s a term. This is a prime example of how the language we use affects the response we get, because it’s so easy to diminish it.
Flashing conjures up images of sad old men in dirty raincoats jumping out of the bushes at you in the 1970s, a time when this kind of thing was hugely diluted by the language we used – because it’s just a bit of fun, right? All a bit Benny Hill. Women just need to lighten up. Flashing is such a vague term, it plays the action down, makes it sound harmless. But it is in fact sexual assault.
We need to think about the words we use, and the way we respond. While we continue to use women’s mental health against them, and malign successful women, we’re just falling into the same, tired narrative. And I’m not going to issue my usual ‘not-all-men’ disclaimer, because this isn’t just aimed at men.
The female DS in charge of the Bulley case was criticised by two female journalists for what she was wearing to a press conference: “Who wears a sleeveless dress in February?” Do men face the same scrutiny about how they have their hair? Would a smartly dressed male DS have been accused of using a press conference “to show off his toned body?”
Sexist vitriol against older women in the public eye
Another successful woman, Madonna (who, let’s face it, has been pushing boundaries her whole career), wasn’t ever going to bow out quietly; that’s why we love her. But the vitriol against her has been staggering. She’s referred to as “Grandma”, and accused of behaving inappropriately, proving yet again that women can’t win when it comes to ageing.
It’s no secret that she’s had work done, but then nothing has ever been a secret with Madonna. She’s always let us see behind the great green Oz curtain of her fabulousness – from her brightly bleached hair to her pointy bras, she takes our ideas of what beauty should be and dares us to question them. Meanwhile, older male performers such as Tom Jones are worshipped like some kind of demi-god and can do no wrong.
Let’s do better
So let’s do better. Let’s think about the words we use, and how we alter them depending on whether we’re talking about a man or a woman. They’re so quick to type/say, it’s easy to forget the impact.